Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

Olmsted couple

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. spent more than a half century advocating for thorough planning when setting aside lands to protect them from development. He believed in first defining the overall purpose of the plan, then balancing the esthetics of the place with the practicality of the manner in which the public would be using it.

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the originator of the profession of landscape architecture. In 1864, Olmsted Senior helped create the nation’s very first state park, also California’s first state park: Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Olmsted believed that it was a political duty of the government to set aside “great public grounds for the free enjoyment of the people,” in perpetuity.

Frederick Law Olmsted Senior’s commitment inspired his son to carry on the family legacy. In 1895 young Olmsted went to work in the family firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his world-famous name made him prominent from the beginning.

In 1910, the American Civic Association requested Olmsted Jr. to advise them on creating a system of national parks. Olmsted provided the civic improvement group with language that has guided conservation in America since: “To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (National Park Service Organic Act, 1916)

Olmsted Junior’s great strength remained public service, and he began to devote himself to the conservation and preservation of state lands. California’s state legislature had established a state park commission in 1927 to plan and develop a state park system. The commission hired Olmsted in 1928 to conduct a survey identifying lands for the California park system. Olmsted divided the state into twelve districts and gathered more than 100 volunteers and experts to help him. The final survey identified 125 potential parks. In the process, Olmsted created a master plan for saving the remaining five percent of California’s magnificent redwoods, the vast lands of today’s Anza-Borrego desert, and many other important California landscapes.

The voters of California passed a park bond in November 1928 that allowed the implementation of Olmsted’s plans. The result would be the creation of what has often been described as the finest state park system in the country. Most of the locations identified by the Olmsted survey have become state parks.

In 1945 California State Parks again called on Olmsted’s skills. Between 1945 and 1950, he produced several reports covering the town of Columbia, the advisability of establishing parkways along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries, and the potential for new parks in areas where no such facilities existed, especially in the valley, desert and mountain areas of the interior. While the first Olmsted survey concentrated on locations to be preserved for their scenic landscapes, these later studies also took into consideration the need for more outdoor recreation locales. Again, most of the properties recommended as parks or park additions in these studies were quickly added to the system as money became available.

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. lived to see the dedication in 1953 of the Olmsted Grove in California’s Redwood National Park, and to hear himself described as “...the greatest of Parks men in the world, indeed the greatest of all time.” Certainly, the California State Park System would not be the jewel that it is today without his work.